As a boy, Dan Depner regularly saw his great-uncle Joe’s 1959 Ford 611 self-propelled combine in action. But he had no idea of its rarity – a Ford combine manufactured under contract by Oliver Machinery Co. in its plant in Battle Creek, Michigan. Nor did he realize that just 51 of the models were built that year. And he certainly didn’t realize that, 55 years later, he and his brother, Eric, would sell the combine in an online auction.
The Ford 611 self-propelled combine is identical to the Oliver 25 self-propelled combine, with the exception of the paint color – red vs. green – and the engine. The Ford used a 223-ci straight 6-cylinder Ford engine, while the Oliver had a flathead Continental 6. In 1959, 101 combines were built at the Oliver plant in Battle Creek: 51 Fords and 50 Olivers.
Just two nights outside
Joe Pelant would be classified as a character. “He never did anything fast,” Dan says. “He never drove anything in high gear or fast, not even his car or pickup truck. He would drive the two miles to town to get groceries in low and slow. On the combine, standing most of the time, he drove low and slow.”
Joe, a dairy farmer, bought a new combine in 1959 from the Webber Bros. Ford dealership in Pigeon, Michigan, eight miles south of Caseville, Michigan, where Dan lives. “He planted wheat, corn and dried beans taken up with a bean header pickup,” Dan says. “Though an attachment was available for a corn header, Joe never bought one.” After he died, his machinery went to his younger sister, Dan’s grandmother. “Some machinery was distributed to other family members and some was sold,” Dan says, “but my brother, Eric, kept the combine.”
Eric is a Ford lover. He’s restored a couple old Ford pickups. And as a teenager, he helped out on Joe’s farm. “That combine was the one thing that we didn’t let go,” Dan says. “We just kept it in the shed where it had always been stored. We didn’t know too much about it but we knew we hadn’t seen any others like it around.”
Joe was meticulous about keeping his machinery stored in the shed. “He didn’t like to leave things out in the weather at night,” Dan says. “My dad says he only knew of two times during all those years that the combine stayed outside at night. That made a real impression on my dad.”
Moving the equipment inside every night required a certain mental agility. It was a process Eric remembers vividly years later. Each piece fit in perfectly, packed tight like a puzzle, with only inches to spare. “Time didn’t mean much to my uncle,” Dan says. “He did things at his own pace.”
After it was last used 20 years ago, Joe’s combine remained in the shed until 2004. That summer, it was taken out for an antique farm equipment show held as part of Webber Bros. Ford’s centennial celebration in Pigeon.
Pigeon remains a traditional farming community, so the Depner brothers figured local people would enjoy seeing the old combine in the celebration’s display of antique farm machinery. In preparation, they cleaned it, added fresh gas and a new battery, and fired up its Ford 223-ci straight 6-cylinder engine.
The process reminded the two of their uncle’s careful treatment of machinery. “Eric found not only some dust and dirt from sitting, but also a good layer of grease too,” Dan says. “Uncle Joe was meticulous about making sure everything was well-lubricated.”
Doing their homework
After the show, the combine stayed in the shed until recently, when the Depner brothers made the decision to sell the relic. They put air in the tires, drained the old fuel, put in new gas, replaced the battery, and adjusted the distributor cap and points. “Then it fired up pretty easily,” Dan says. “We only replaced the main drive belt that runs the machine down the road. We didn’t take it out in the field to try it out or put any grain in it.”
The Ford had never seen much use, a fact that is obvious when you look at the original red paint still covering most of it. “On the day we sold it, my brother climbed up into the grain bin and commented on how the paint inside was still solid and fresh, and not even worn off from the grain,” Dan says. “So it couldn’t have seen a great deal of use.”
Before selling the combine, the brothers resolved to learn as much as they could about it. “I tried to get as much information as I could from various farm blogs,” Dan says, “but there just wasn’t much information out there. All we really found were a couple of photos.” They didn’t even know the unit’s original price. Eventually they learned that just 51 units were built in 1959.
Dan talked to antique farm equipment auctioneers and showed them pictures, but none had seen or sold a combine like it. “We were trying to get a rough idea of what price to put on it if we sold it, but weren’t coming up with any comparable sales,” he says. “We quickly realized the best option and the fairest thing to do would be to put it on an online auction.”
Marketing an heirloom
When the Depners decided to put the combine on eBay, Dan mounted an aggressive marketing campaign. He emailed clubs, museums (including the Henry Ford in Dearborn, Michigan, and the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago) and individuals, notifying them of the auction. The museums might have accepted the combine as a donation, he says, but with limited budgets, they weren’t interested in bidding.
Some people dismiss the idea of combines as collectibles, saying the machines’ size makes them unattractive to collectors and diminishes their value. “They said it wouldn’t be worth much more than scrap price,” Dan says. “We took those comments with a grain of salt, realizing how few of the machines were out there. We knew it was a rare piece and was definitely worth more than scrap iron.”
Prior to the auction, Dan filmed his father driving the combine back and forth around the yard. “We turned on the harvester, the gear and the reel, and showed everything starting and running,” he says. He posted the video and photos on various social media sites as a resource for prospective buyers. “I tried to be as detailed as possible in the auction description,” he says, “since most of the buyers were from other states in the Midwest and I knew they were unable to come inspect the machine.”
The eBay auction generated enormous interest from prospective bidders as well as persons interested in antique farm equipment in a general sense. “I started getting emails from people who just wanted to share their memories of similar combines,” Dan says. “It’s been fun to see how people respond when they hear about this old combine.”
Over the 10 days of the auction, six prospective buyers submitted 17 bids. Several wanted to take the combine out in the field again just for fun, but that would have been a bit of a project. To make the combine run perfectly again, Dan says, the new owner would need to fix a hydraulic leak, replace a bearing and belts, and make repairs to the straw walkers.
But the winning bidder – a Ford collector from the upper Midwest who chose to remain anonymous – wasn’t at all interested in using the combine. Instead, the relic was added to his collection of more than 100 Ford tractors and implements, many of them unique.
In the end, Dan says, the combine was worth what it went for. “No doubt the new owner will continue to take care of it, appreciate it and not let it sit outside and rust away,” he says. “Who knows? Maybe someday it will end up in a museum, maybe even the Henry Ford.”
Overall, Dan says, the process of finding a new home for the combine was a positive experience. “That machine is just so tied to our family that it’s kind of like a family heirloom,” he says. “Knowing how well Uncle Joe took care of it, and how much pride he took in farming, it has been a rewarding experience to find the combine a good home. We couldn’t be happier with the way the auction turned out.”
The new owner drove more than 700 miles to retrieve his prize. After getting the combine chained down and secure, the Depners and the new owner enjoyed a visit over lunch. “It was almost like finding a new home for a pet you’ve had for quite a few years,” Dan admits, “even though it was a big hunk of inanimate steel on wheels.”
After a final round of photos, the Depners watched as the new owner pulled out with the combine on his trailer. “It was a bittersweet moment, seeing that old machine go,” Dan says. “Maybe 20 years from now we’ll be kicking ourselves and wondering why we ever got rid of that old machine. On the other hand, it’s nice to see it go off to a new home where it will be well taken care of.” FC
For more information:
— Dan Depner, 5945 Griggs Rd., Caseville, MI 48725; email: dandepner (at) gmail.com.
Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact him at Box 372, 400 Caroline Ln., Rockville, MN 56369; email: firstname.lastname@example.org.